The Puzzle

The Puzzle

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Puzzle

I grew up on a farm in Iowa, the youngest of four boys. My dad had made it through the eighth grade and then started working. My mom was the valedictorian of her small high school class, but started working on the family farm rather than going to college. Even though neither had gone to college, education was very important in our house. My parents said that they didn’t care if we read comic books, so long as we were reading. I later realized that they were two of the more intelligent people I would ever meet, but when I was in high school, I thought they were incredibly dumb. I am not sure if my brothers felt the same, but I could not wait to get away from home and go to college.

I first saw the Rockwell picture during the Christmas season of my sophomore year at college. It hit me with a lot of emotions I didn’t know I had inside me. I was walking with my girlfriend (who eventually became my wife) down an aisle of jigsaw puzzles, utterly bored. Puzzles had never been part of my family, but they were very popular in hers. The picture caught my eye because it had been made into a puzzle. I took one look at it and went to pieces.

The son could have been me: anxious to go to school, looking beyond the father, not considering what he might be thinking. I was the son who went to college and never wrote home. The father represented what I thought of my father: a hard-working farmer wondering about his son, but not able to express his thoughts or his feelings. The final straw was the collie. When I was growing up, we had a beautiful collie named Lassie.

I immediately started crying and bolted from the store. My girlfriend finally found me, standing outside with tears running down my cheeks. I took her back inside and showed her the puzzle and started crying again. She gave me the strangest look. Emotional outbursts were not something Iowa farm boys did.

I bought the puzzle and wrapped it up for Christmas for Dad. I added a note: “Dad, I got this present, not because it was a jigsaw puzzle, but because of the picture on it. Somehow, it really struck home when I saw it.” I had some concern about giving it because it was an emotional gift. Emotions were not something easily shared among the males in our house.

Christmas morning came, and I kept a close eye on Dad when he picked up my gift to open. I really did not know what to expect—whether to be excited or embarrassed. Dad took off the paper and looked at the box, his expression never changing. It was clear to me that he did not think much of the present. Just as well—we never did puzzles in our house. He put the box down and without a word left the room. After about a minute, Mom noticed he was gone. She went out to the kitchen and found Dad crying. She could not understand what had happened.

When Mom brought Dad back into the family room and I saw Dad crying, I started crying and laughing at the same time. I had never seen my dad cry before. Dad showed Mom the picture. He explained that when he saw that the father had a tobacco bag just like the one he used to roll cigarettes, the emotions became too much. Like any good farmer, he did not think it was right to cry in front of his family, so he had left the room. My older brother somehow missed the magic of the moment and looked at us both as if we were losing it.

I have often wondered how Norman Rockwell drew a picture with details that fit our family so perfectly: the eager son, the weathered father, the collie and the tobacco bag. If we had paid him to paint a picture summarizing the first eighteen years of my life, he could not have done better. We put the puzzle together and Mom glued it to a board so they could hang it in their bedroom.

Dad is now eighty-four and slowed by Parkinson’s disease. I live in Minneapolis and visit him several times a year. A few years ago, Dad decided to give us a hug when we were leaving. He said he did not want to die without hugging his boys. It has taken years to get used to a hug from him.

Every time I drive back to Iowa to see my parents, I think of the picture hanging in their bedroom. It still reflects what I think of my dad. How he worked so hard to get us through college, something he really did not understand but knew was important. How he never really told us how much he thought of us. And I am still ashamed by how it embodies me at that time. How I went to college never thinking how my parents might feel about me, just ready to get away. I still get tears in my eyes when I think of that picture.

Several years ago, I decided I would talk about this picture when the time came for my father’s funeral, and how this picture was able to say things to my dad on that special Christmas that I was not able to say myself. But then I thought, “Why am I going to wait? Let me write it down now so Dad can read about it while he is still alive.” So I have. Only one more thing to say: “I love you, Dad.”

Jerry Gale

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